The Constant Gardener comes billed alternately as a political thriller or a love story, but it’s really the best kind of movie of all—one that stands entirely outside of any specific genre. Yes, it’s based on a novel by John Le Carré, and his books are typically branded as political thrillers, but like Graham Greene’s work they also operate as straight literary fiction. Gardener, the movie, also doesn’t need a label to be outstanding—it is a great story, and even a troubling and angry one on top of that. I am not someone who insists that a story have a degree of moral outrage to be good; there are plenty of novels and movies that have no moral component and are still outstanding drama. With Gardener, the drama is effortlessly blended into the story’s other concerns so you never feel like you’re getting a lecture. It’s all of a piece.
Gardener deals with Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a British diplomat who is a decent and hardworking chap but clearly not willing to stick his neck out all that far. One day when delivering a fairly boring lecture for a colleague he’s buttonholed at the end by Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a young firebrand with a lot of pith in her for the way England has collaborated with the Bush Administration in the Second Gulf War. Her pith gives way to venom, her venom to tears, and Justin rather awkwardly tries to comfort her. More than that, he even speaks in her defense, however tentatively, when other members of the audience boo her roundly for speaking out in this manner.
They like each other. More than that, they want to understand each other’s position. He admires her for her guts, and she admires him because …well, because he sticks up for her, and what’s wrong with that? They soon become husband and wife, and when Justin is stationed in Africa, she insists on going along. He doesn’t think it’s such a great idea, but he knows better than to tell her no by that point, and so off they go. There, she becomes a regular gadfly among many of the wrong people. At one point she embarrasses the head of a major pharmaceutical concern into providing free medicine for a village, and people mutter sidelong to Justin that he needs to put her on a leash. Or in a muzzle.
But we know he will do no such thing, not even when she begins to suspect that there is something very wrong with the presence of said pharmo companies in Africa. Not even when she miscarries and whispers to Justin in a horrified voice of things going on in this hospital that she is positive are illegal or immoral or both. He knows her too well, just as he knows himself too well, and he loves her anyway. And then one day she and a colleague, a handsome African doctor with a broad smile, are found dead in a Jeep in a part of the countryside where few would go willingly—tortured and killed, and left for all to see in a way that cannot be taken for anything but a warning.
The death is actually where the film opens, so there are no scenes where Tessa is actually alive. When she splashes giddily around in the tub while pregnant and Justin films her with his video camera, it’s more sad and unsettling than cute. We know what will happen to her, and what has happened to her will be the thing that really begins Justin’s journey. Up until that point he had essentially pledged to let her do her thing while he did his, to cultivate their respective gardens (both metaphorically and literally—Justin is an amateur horticulturist) and not stand in each other’s way. Now she is dead, and Justin can either choose to pretend that nothing has happened or pick up where she left off. There is a moment when he returns to the house they shared and he goes prostrate with grief, and we know that he will never be able to simply put her down and walk away. The movie also paces his investigation with care, so that he is not turned instantly into a crusader for justice, but is instead someone who is tentatively, fearfully, trying to find out the truth.
Most of the first hour of the movie is about the details of their relationship, but it is woven tightly with the way Africa struggles daily against horrendous poverty and privation and sickness. AIDS is merely one of the more widely-discussed diseases that ravages the country, and in the film a multinational outfit named ThreeBees has ingratiated itself nicely with what passes for the power structures there to provide health care. The movie argues that such care is little more than using Africa as one giant undocumented testing center for drugs as a way of circumventing the kind of strictures imposed by the FDA and similar authorities, allowing the companies involved to bring products to market faster. Maybe saving future lives, yes, but at what cost, and under what questionable conditions? “It's like it's a marriage of convenience and all it produces are dead offspring,” Tessa fulminates at one point, and given that she loses her baby during the course of the movie (and later her life), her words take on additional ugly weight.
Justin learns about all of this as someone might in real life—in bits and pieces, from fragmentary clues that he has to reverse-engineer to derive meaning from. He learns that Tessa was willing to do a little too much of anything to be heard. That colleagues of his were involved and bent over backwards to avoid embarrassing themselves in public. That his own handler Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) would like very much for this problem to not make any more people uncomfortable. There are scenes where Justin sits and smiles and tries not to look like he’s making too much of a stink. Later, when he realizes that he is up against people who will be happy to have him killed without a second thought, he dives headlong into the savanna to pull answers out of the dark with his bare hands.
There are so many things about the movie that work, and work seamlessly, that it is hard to know where to begin. The acting, certainly: Ralph Fiennes is a favorite actor of mine, and here he gives us someone who has practiced a studied detachment from even his own work for so long than when he does commit, he does so irreversibly. Rachel Weisz makes Tessa credible in the bluntest way—there are times when you are frankly annoyed at the character, and then you realize that everyone else in the movie is, too, and that she (and the film) are achieving precisely what was intended. Towards the end of the movie there is an appearance by yet another favorite actor of mine, Pete Postlethwaite, as a doctor who knows entirely too much about how medicine works (or, rather, does not work) in Africa.
Gardener was directed by Fernando Meirelles, a director of some fearless mien not only for his choice of material but for how he chose to realize it. His previous movie before this was City of God, not only stunning for its epic storytelling but because the filmmakers descended into the very Rio de Janeiro slum where the action took place and shot it all on location. Gardener, likewise, was filmed in Nairobi, with a portion of the proceeds from the production set aside after filmmaking concluded to aid the people living there. It’s rare, and heartening, to see a movie that succeeds in every way as entertainment and then on top of that works to embody the very principles it expounds.
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